Come Again?

Last week, for Nailing Down The Essentials, we looked at the actual words the character speaks. This week is about how those words sound. As writers, we want so badly for our readers to hear our characters’ voices as we do, and we often struggle with how best to ensure they do, with mixed results.

The task becomes even more difficult if our characters speak in something other than standard English with a fairly mid-Western accent. If they have a regional accent, or worse, speak an obscure dialect, how can we be sure our readers hear that? And what about speech impediments? Most readers will be familiar with lisps or stutters, but what about other issues, perhaps from a tied tongue, or cleft pallate?

If we write dialogue exactly as our characters speak, we run the risk of the reader not being able to follow. Take Jack for example, from my own WIP, Blood Dragon. He speaks a regional dialect I grew up with – it’s steadily disappearing and was only spoken by a small population to begin with, and is difficult for non-native speakers to understand. This passage:

“Time is running out. They said twenty-four hours. It has been seven and we have nothing. Pain doesn’t do it for her, or she’d have bent a little by now.” 

If I had resorted to phonetic spelling, a technique newer writers may be tempted to fall back on, that passage would look like this:

“Time a’ru’n’ out. ‘ey sa’ twu’y-four ares. ‘s b’n se’n, ‘n ‘e ain’ go’ no’n. Pain ‘on’ do ‘t f’r ‘er, ‘r she’ ‘a’ ben’ a l’ul ‘fo’ now.”

Um. Srsly? You want to subject a reader to deciphering THAT?? Well, I don’t. If my reader has to slow down and try to reason out what my character is saying, my book is going to put a dent in their wall. So, how do I let my reader know he speaks something other than standard English?

First, while I was planning his character, I selected a few words to emphasize his dialect. Supposed became s’posed, probably became prob’ly, get became git. When Jack speaks those words, I use my modified phonetic spelling, but I don’t stop there.

I use his word choices, turns of phrase, and his grammar, to show the reader a little more of his actual speech. I make a couple of references to him being difficult to understand. “His habit of slurring words together and dropping entire syllables made his words nearly unintelligible.”  at one point, when he is speaking to someone unfamiliar with him. I have another character who knows him admonish him to speak correctly. Another frequently asks him to repeat himself. Here is my representation of him speaking that passage:

“Time’s running out. They said twenty-four hours. It’s been seven and we ain’t got nothing. Pain don’t do it for her, or she’d have bent a little by now.” 

My reader won’t hear him exactly as I do, but they’ll have an approximation.

Accents can be treated similarly. Most Americans are at least slightly familiar with a Southern drawl, or a Brooklyn accent. By simply telling the reader that the character has that accent, they get it. We can further show the accent with word choice, and one or two simple phonetic spellings.

My good friend and critique partner, Azure Boone, has a supporting character with a unique speech impediment, and she shows it brilliantly. Jeremy is also developmentally disabled, so she uses his phrasing, grammar, and word choices, to give the reader a sense of what he sounds like. Then she goes one step further, and uses just a couple of words exactly the way he pronounces them. Remember is mamember, and breech (he tells everyone he meets how he was born breech – a stellar technique for showing his personality) is pronounced bleech.

We can give our readers a pretty good representation of what our characters sound like if we use a variety of techniques, and trust the readers to be able to put it all together and interpret what we’re trying to show them.

Practice using all the tools I’ve covered in the last few weeks, formatting, dialog tags, action beats, unique character voice, and, finally, accents. Put them all together, add a little research and your own touch, and your dialog will become more realistic, and make your characters memorable.

This post concludes the dialog portion of Nailing Down the Essentials. Next week, I’ll move on to a different story element. Since I haven’t decided yet, if there’s an aspect of writing you’d like to see covered here, leave a comment. As I’ve said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve picked up a few things. And if it’s something I don’t know enough about to explore here, I’ll research it.

Have you found the dialog series helpful at all? Do you have other techniques to make your dialog stand out?

Who’s Telling Who?

Dialog ballons

Last week, for Nailing Down the Essentials, I posted a really basic overview of several facets of writing dialog. Now, it’s time to focus in more tightly and have a more in-depth look. (*Note: I’m running this one again, since there were only a few views last week. With the holiday plans and travel, not to mention Nano, perhaps some people were too busy.)

Dialog tags serve as attributions, telling the reader which character is speaking. When I was in High School – more years ago than I care to admit – we were required to use descriptive dialog tags. Points were marked off for every saidasked, or replied, and the tag would be crossed out, leaving the speech unattributed. If anything was left unattributed, either on purpose or because the tag was crossed out, the teacher crossed it out, refusing to read it, then marked off for incomprehensible dialog. So we had lists of descriptive verbs to use instead of said. Words like: admonished, advised, exhorted… Plain old said bored the reader, and our teacher did her best to keep us from such a dreaded fate.

Imagine my surprise at learning Mrs. Smith was *gasp* wrong! Back then, I knew that some of my favorite authors didn’t use outlandish words to replace said. They also often left several lines of dialog unattributed, expecting the reader to understand that when there are two speakers, they generally take turns. I didn’t have access to any writing craft materials in those days, so I had to study my favorite authors, and attempt to emulate what I liked about their writing.

Now I know the reasons behind…

The Missing Descriptive Dialog Tags

Our goals as writers should be to disappear, let the reader forget they’re reading a story and get lost in our world. So we do whatever we can to help them get lost. One of the simplest ways is to be unobtrusive. If the reader has to stop and figure out what pontificating sounds like, they’re worrying about their dictionary rather than the story. Readers don’t have to think about said, so it becomes less intrusive, and lets them stay deeply involved in the story.

During a conversation that’s more than one or two lines for both speakers, the use of said will stand out. And here’s a huge revelation: readers can be trusted to follow a few lines of dialog and know who’s speaking. As long as we follow standard formatting, 5 or 6 lines are easily understood. Of course, we don’t want long exchanges with no way for the reader to know which character said what unless they go back to the beginning to count lines. Yup, it happens regularly.

But that isn’t the end of the story.

And Now, The Disappearing Author!

If our goal  is to disappear, and said is less intrusive, wouldn’t it be better to use no dialog tags? Well, yes. Yes, it would. The trick is, using no, or very few tags, effectively. Occasionally, a tag is simply necessary to let the reader know who is speaking and how, but normally, dialog tags really aren’t necessary.

We still have to be sure the reader knows who’s speaking. There are several techniques for doing that, and using a combination of them is often the best approach. The good thing is, those techniques also serve to make our dialog more realistic, more like people actually talk. So, by using them, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone.

No two people speak exactly alike, so giving each character a unique voice will make it less necessary to use dialog tags. People don’t often sit and look at each other, and exchange roughly equivalent bits of conversation. They squirm, adjust clothing, play with their hair, eat or drink. And that’s just if they’re sitting. We can use those little actions, or action beats, to let the reader know who’s speaking, as well as make our dialog more interesting.

We can let the reader know how something is said through word choice, context, action beats, and description. Using an adverb with said is pretty much on a par with those descriptive verbs. Rather than telling the reader that the character spoke plaintively, use all those other techniques to show it.

Next week, I’ll take a look at giving each character her own way of speaking, complete with accents, patterns of speech, vocabularies, and favorite expressions. The following week I’ll cover action beats. Both will tie in with showing how the character is speaking.

What’s Your Favorite…

Line of dialog from your WIP? Why?

Who’s Telling Who?

Dialog ballons

Image via Wikipedia

Last week, for Nailing Down the Essentials, I posted a really basic overview of several facets of writing dialog. Now, it’s time to focus in more tightly and have a more in-depth look.

Dialog tags serve as attributions, telling the reader which character is speaking. When I was in High School – more years ago than I care to admit – we were required to use descriptive dialog tags. Points were marked off for every said, asked, or replied, and the tag would be crossed out, leaving the speech unattributed. If anything was left unattributed, either on purpose or because the tag was crossed out, the teacher crossed it out, refusing to read it, then marked off for incomprehensible dialog. So we had lists of descriptive verbs to use instead of said. Words like: admonished, advised, exhorted… Plain old said bored the reader, and our teacher did her best to keep us from such a dreaded fate.

Imagine my surprise at learning Mrs. Smith was *gasp* wrong! Back then, I knew that some of my favorite authors didn’t use outlandish words to replace said. They also often left several lines of dialog unattributed, expecting the reader to understand that when there are two speakers, they generally take turns. I didn’t have access to any writing craft materials in those days, so I had to study my favorite authors, and attempt to emulate what I liked about their writing.

Now I know the reasons behind…

The Missing Descriptive Dialog Tags

Our goals as writers should be to disappear, let the reader forget they’re reading a story and get lost in our world. So we do whatever we can to help them get lost. One of the simplest ways is to be unobtrusive. If the reader has to stop and figure out what pontificating sounds like, they’re worrying about their dictionary rather than the story. Readers don’t have to think about said, so it becomes less intrusive, and lets them stay deeply involved in the story.

During a conversation that’s more than one or two lines for both speakers, the use of said will stand out. And here’s a huge revelation: readers can be trusted to follow a few lines of dialog and know who’s speaking. As long as we follow standard formatting, 5 or 6 lines are easily understood. Of course, we don’t want long exchanges with no way for the reader to know which character said what unless they go back to the beginning to count lines. Yup, it happens regularly.

But that isn’t the end of the story.

And Now, The Disappearing Author!

If our goal  is to disappear, and said is less intrusive, wouldn’t it be better to use no dialog tags? Well, yes. Yes, it would. The trick is, using no, or very few tags, effectively. Occasionally, a tag is simply necessary to let the reader know who is speaking and how, but normally, dialog tags really aren’t necessary.

We still have to be sure the reader knows who’s speaking. There are several techniques for doing that, and using a combination of them is often the best approach. The good thing is, those techniques also serve to make our dialog more realistic, more like people actually talk. So, by using them, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone.

No two people speak exactly alike, so giving each character a unique voice will make it less necessary to use dialog tags. People don’t often sit and look at each other, and exchange roughly equivalent bits of conversation. They squirm, adjust clothing, play with their hair, eat or drink. And that’s just if they’re sitting. We can use those little actions, or action beats, to let the reader know who’s speaking, as well as make our dialog more interesting.

We can let the reader know how something is said through word choice, context, action beats, and description. Using an adverb with said is pretty much on a par with those descriptive verbs. Rather than telling the reader that the character spoke plaintively, use all those other techniques to show it.

Next week, I’ll take a look at giving each character her own way of speaking, complete with accents, patterns of speech, vocabularies, and favorite expressions. The following week I’ll cover action beats. Both will tie in with showing how the character is speaking.

What’s Your Favorite…

Line of dialog from your WIP? Why?